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Category Archives: NBA Preview
December 17, 2015Posted by on
The Golden State Warriors didn’t make any significant roster changes between 2014-15 and 2015-16 and yet they’ve come into the season a better version of themselves, most notably embodied by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Draymond’s been amazing and deserves his own writing which can be found on other parts of the internet, but I keep going back to Steph and trying to understand how a 27-year-old can experience such a statistical explosion.
Contextually speaking, we’ve only seen one (maybe two, but I’ll get to that) scorers go from good to great the way Curry’s done this year. I took a look at every player in NBA history who has qualified for minutes played and averaged over 30 points for an entire season, then looked at their previous season to identify the greatest leaps season-over-season – essentially players going from good scorers to great scorers, or great to greater in some cases.
The outliers were players that experienced massive leaps between their rookie and second seasons as no baseline of performance had been set. Three of the four greatest season-over-season increases in points-per-game were from players in this outlier set:
- Jerry West: 17.6ppg as a rookie to 30.8ppg in year two (+13.2)
- BoB McAdoo: 18ppg as a rookie to 30.6ppg in year two (+12.6)
- Rick Barry: 25.7ppg as a rookie to 35.6ppg in year two (+9.9)
Then there’s Michael Jordan’s second season which I threw out because he appeared in just 18 games and played 25 minutes/game. So instead of comparing Jordan’s year two average (22.7ppg) to his year three (37.1ppg), I used his first season as a baseline (28.2ppg) which gave him an increase of 8.9ppg. I tossed this out as well.
Once we clear out the noise, we’re left with a sample size of 57 occurrences of players averaging 30 or more – 43 of which saw a season-over-season increase, 14 had a decrease. The greatest non-rookie-to-second season leap ever was Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 when he set the league record with what is still a confounding 50.4ppg which was a 12-point increase over the previous year when he scored a paltry 38.4.
Next on the list is our subject, young Mr. Curry. At 32.3ppg (as of Saturday night), Curry’s a robust 8.5ppg more than he scored last year. That makes for a 26% season-over-season growth which is the highest percentage growth of the entire sample of 57 30-point seasons (with outliers removed). I don’t care or know who the best scorer is on this list, but through 25 games in 2015, Curry’s experiencing an unprecedented growth rate. If we want to get deeper on how silly his season’s become, he’s averaging the lowest minutes/game of any player to ever score 30ppg at 34.9. George Gervin is second at 35.7, then Michael Jordan in 1991 at 37mpg. And maybe it’s not fair to compare percentages from the three-point era to the pre-three-point era, but by any measure that includes weighting the three-point shot (TS% and eFG%), Curry has the all-time highest accuracy rates – 68.8% TS and 64% eFG – of any players to score 30 or more. Adrian Dantley circa 1983-84 is second in TS at 65.2% and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is second in eFG at 57.7% — a full 6.3% behind Curry. But why stop there when Curry also has the highest 2-pt% of anyone on this list at 58.4%.
This feels awfully Bill Simmonsy to write, but re-read that last paragraph. Within the context of volume scorers in league history, no one’s ever done it anywhere remotely similar to Curry this season.
Which leads to the question: Just what on god’s green earth is happening to Steph this season? I did some work on this in early November when Curry was averaging 37ppg and some of the trends from then still hold up now: Curry’s opportunities are up year-over-year in terms of FGA/game, 3PA/game, and FTA/game while his accuracy for each is at or above his career-bests – only his free throw percentage is below career-best and he’s still making 90% of them.
But I don’t feel satisfied just saying volume and efficiency have risen even if those things are true. There are notions and theories at play here that I feel compelled to explore. I went back to the start of 2013-14 (starting with game 11 of that season – the reasoning will become clearer) and broke out Steph’s ensuing 201 games into 25-game chunks that include regular season and playoffs. The patterns are intriguing in that we’re able to see sporadic trends during Mark Jackson’s final year with the team when Curry’s three chunks of 25 games saw his minutes fluctuate between an average of nearly 40 in games 11-35 down to just under 36 in games 36-61. When he was playing nearly 40mpg, his FG% and 3p% were the worst of this 8-set sample, as were his turnovers/game – nearly 5.
As Kerr came on in 2014-15, there’s an immediate shift in Curry’s minutes down to a much-more-manageable 32-34/night with a steady rise in his three-point accuracy and a slight dip in total points. During that first regular season under Kerr, he took less field goal attempts, averaged less assists, and turned the ball over than he did under Jackson the previous year. It’s necessary to call out that Kerr taking over as coach led to a lot more changes than Curry’s role in the Warriors offense, but for the sake of this post and your time, we’ll focus on how Curry responded.
Last year’s playoff run is where we get a preview of what’s to come for Curry. Where he shot around eight threes/game in the regular season, it spiked up to 10.6 in 21 playoff games and final four games of the regular season. His three-point percentage stayed right at his average of this 201-game sample size – 43.6% during playoffs/reg season vs. 43.5% overall.
It’s that rise in the three-ball volume that appears to have carried over to 2015-16. Beginning in the sixth chunk of 25 games – game 52 to 76 of 2014-15 – Curry experienced his most accurate stretch of three point shooting: 107 of 208 – a 51.4% clip which accounted for 54.1% of his total points. For context, his average percentage of points from the three over this entire sample was 39.4%. From that block of games forward, his volume of three-pointers attempted has only increased. Curry was a great shooter before this stretch, but let’s look at the previous 126 games (start of 2013-14 thru game 51 of last season) against the most recent 75 games (game 52 of 2014-15 to present):
- 126 game stretch: 412 threes made on 1003 attempts, 3.3 threes/game, 41% accuracy, threes account for 41% total points
- 75 game stretch: 350 threes made on 751 attempts, 4.6 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 50% total points
- 25 game stretch in 2015-16: 127 threes made on 277 attempts, 5.1 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 47% total points
What we’re seeing now is like late-career Barry Bonds crushing all MLB walk records. In 2001, Bonds set the record with 177 walks, then bested it in 2002 by 21, and in 2004 put an exclamation point on his own theater of absurd by walking 232 times. This is Steph with threes – minus the weird head enlargement and freakish physical metamorphosis. Curry is taking a truly great skill (he already holds the top-two single season marks for threes made) and building upon it, but in a way that appears to be a collectively conscious extension of last season’s second half run. It’s not just that he’s taking and making more threes, but that his range is extending – or it was always there and his confidence and the team’s confidence in him taking deeper shots has grown (per stats.nba.com):
- 2013-14: 5.1 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
- 2014-15: 5.5 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
- 2015-16: 7.2 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
He’s already hit as many threes from 30-34 feet (three) as he did all of last season (regular season and playoffs combined) and more than he did in 2013-14 (playoffs and reg. combined). The impact of extending his range out further isn’t lost on his two-point game (again, he’s shooting 58.4% on twos) or his teammates who experience a wider, more open floor. Harrison Barnes approves.
Whatever Golden State saw in last year’s playoffs has carried over into this new season. The volume, the freedom, the carte blanche to shoot from anywhere at any time is open. We’re seeing Curry’s Davidson days replicated at the highest level of basketball in the known universe (when NCAA opponents decided they’d rather lose than have Curry go off on them, they were essentially waving a white flag in the same way MLB pitchers did when they intentionally walked Bonds all those hundreds of times). But what’s most fascinating to me is how Golden State appears to have tapped into an optimal playing time balance for Curry and the rest of the team. As I mentioned earlier when comparing Steph to other 30-point scorers, we’ve never had another 30-point scorer play this few minutes. Last year Curry won the MVP with the fewest minutes ever for a winner at 32.7. This isn’t just happenstance, but occurs when your margin of victory is somewhere between 10-13 points/night and your lead at the end of the third is 20-30 so your starters can kick back and rest during the final period.
If we break out his efficiency and scoring output across five-minute splits, we can see a sweet spot in the 30-40 minute range. The sample below is from 2013-14 to present with playoffs included. It makes sense that in closer games where Curry struggles individually or the Warriors struggle collectively, Curry would play more minutes and see his efficiency dip and indeed his TS and eFG for games where he plays over 40 minutes are below averages in this sample set. What’s interesting though is that Curry’s output is greater in games where he plays 35-40 minutes than 40-45. For some players on that 30-ppg list, there’s a straight forward line between volume (minutes played and shot attempts) and points. For Curry, more doesn’t always equal more and Golden State appears to grasp that.
My suggestion that Golden State may have landed at an optimal spot in terms of Curry’s usage and minutes/game is the last area we’ll touch on. Last year they won 67 games in the regular season and went 16-5 in the post-season. This year, the playmaking responsibilities are increasingly falling in Draymond’s hands and the results are indisputable to-date. I’m curious about how far this envelope can be pushed though. We already see that Curry’s efficiency and even output in some cases takes a hit the more he plays, so pushing the envelope is finding ways to get more shots. It’s easy to look at what this team is doing and suggest that if ain’t broke, don’t break it, but they’ve made changes from last season with nothing but positive outcomes. Steph’s already stolen about two shots/game from Klay and two from somewhere else (David Lee?). Are there two more to go round? Is two more three-point attempts from Steph per game a better use of possessions than a shot each from Bogut and Draymond? Man, I don’t know and I’m not convinced it even matters, but while they’re here they may as well push it to the limit.
December 8, 2015Posted by on
On December 7th, 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers hosted a Bill Russell-coached Seattle Supersonics team in Los Angeles. The game was and should be mostly lost to history with the emphasis of post-game narratives on the Sonics finally catching a win in LA.
As Gil Lyons of the Seattle Times wrote:
The Sonics scrambled and clawed to a 115-111 success, ending a string of 20 frustrating appearances in Jack Kent Cooke’s sports palace. The win also snapped a 13-game Laker domination of Seattle and ended the Sonics’ own six-game string of losses.
For me the game would’ve remained resigned to the minutia of NBA history, a single pixel in an infinitely-sized NBA logo were it not for today’s sport page. Tucked away on the back page beneath the WHL standings and next to the upcoming NFL lines was the “This date in sports history” feature: On December 7th, 1973 Jerry West recorded a then-NBA record 10 steals against the Sonics. If it would’ve been Alvin Robertson setting the record in 1987, I would’ve batted an eyelash but nothing more.
I knew the tracking of steals came along a little later than the standard points, rebounds, and assists, but didn’t realize the stat was tracked as early as 1973-74; which happened to be the first season the league kept track of thefts. For historical context, West’s 10 steals is still good enough for second-most steals all-time in a game. Larry Kenon (1976) and Kendall Gill (1999) each had 11-steal games.
On the night of all those steals back in December of 1973, Jerry West, whose silhouette would eventually be immortalized as the NBA’s logo, was a 35-year-old combo guard in the final season his illustrious career. He only appeared in 31 games that season due to a groin injury, but still averaged over 20ppg, 6apg, and nearly 4rpg. Most interesting in his stat line though was the 2.6 steals he averaged.
It’s fair to assume the 35-year-old West had lost a step by 1973. While still a quality guard with good play left in the tank, his averages and efficiency were down across the board. He appeared in a career-low minutes and games while averaging the lowest points since his rookie season – and still put up 20/game. His combined playoff and regular season minutes were nearly 43,000 and it’s clear to point to age as a contributing factor to his season-limiting injury.
And even with those caveats, West still averaged 2.6 steals/game. For more context, only seven players in league history have reached at least 80 total steals while averaging at least 2.5 steals and less than 32 minutes/game. The rest of those guys were between 22 and 29. At 35, West was stealing the ball at an all-time clip. For a fun exercise in projecting what West could’ve possibly achieved in terms of career steals, Curtis Harris, curator of the great http://prohoopshistory.net/, attempted to estimate West’s career steal numbers. The sensible methodology produces eight seasons with three-plus steals/game and one season with over four steals/game and most ludicrous is that there’s nothing unreasonable about the projections.
This is where I reveal my ignorance in that I haven’t watched West’s clips nearly as much as I wish I had. I have his autobiography, West by West, sitting on a bookshelf, unread and while I can rattle off West anecdotes, I’ve never gone deep on his defensive capabilities. The league started awarding All-Defensive honors in 1968-69 when West was nearing the end of his prime. In the six years he was eligible for defensive awards, he made the second team once and the first team four times – all past the age of 30. While his nickname was Mr. Clutch and damn near any highlight you’ll find of him will be of a steady downpour of jumpers, he had a reputation for being strong defender and reportedly had an 81-inch wingspan which is the same as Rajon Rondo. All this mixed with the hard evidence of 2.6 steals/game as a 35-year-old and anecdotal evidence of his intense approach to defense point a player who should be considered one of the greatest back court defenders in league history.
That game 42 years ago could act as a microcosm for the tortured dissatisfaction that plagued much of West’s life and pro basketball career. The Lakers turned the ball over 30 times and four of their players fouled out. West was masterful in defeat though with 27 points on 15 shots, five rebounds, five assists and of course 10 steals. That’s a line that’s been achieved just four other times in league history. And not to belabor the point, but West was 35 when he did it. West knew he was a great player, but did it give him any measure of satisfaction? I have no idea, but tracing his defensive prowess beyond the threshold of a 10-steal game 42 years ago has given me an even greater sense of appreciation for the Logo.
November 30, 2015Posted by on
Do you remember that stretch of games from Alvin Robertson back in November of 1986? He was a third-year shooting guard for the Spurs out of the University of Arkansas already established as being a tough defender. Hell, he’d already been named to the All-Star team in his second season when he set the NBA record for steals-per-game with 3.7. 29 years ago, starting on November 15th, 1986, Robertson came out with seven steals against the Suns, then followed it up with five more games of six steals or more with a streak-high of ten steals against the Clippers on November 22nd.
In the ensuing 29 years, the longest streak of six steals or more that any player amassed was two games. It’s not easy to do. There’s a knack to steals that’s part anticipation, part gamble, part identifying the sucker at the table. I’ve seen Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul take risks that leave backline defenders painfully naked, caught between speeding point guards on the front and soon-to-be alley oop dunking giants on the back, but hey, it’s taking the risk for an easy bucket and being a thief doesn’t always equate with being a great defender, but getting six or more steals several games in a row means you’re doing at least something right.
So it came as a surprise when the Philadelphia 76ers and their 0-18 roster produced some kind of off-kilter heir to Alvin Robertson in this kid Robert Covington. Covington was born back in 1990, a good four years after Robertson was stalking NBA teams and taking the ball from them with unprejudiced kleptomania. And with all the Stocktons, Jordans, and Pauls that have hunted the ball over the years, it’s the 6’9” 24-year-old from Tennessee State that sniffing around at what hard ass Robertson reached all those years ago.
Unfortunately, the depth of NBA.com’s stats database doesn’t allow us to go back and scout out every one of those Robertson steals, but we can look at all of the Covington thefts over these past three games. Covington’s streak started less than a week ago on November, 25th with six steals against the Celtics. It was in a losing effort like all Philadelphia games this year, but his opportunistic instincts were on display. He was beaten by Jae Crowder on a screen, but used his long arms to poke the ball away from behind and force the TO. He capitalized on a full-court press, played help defense, stripped a defensive rebounder, and made himself a nuisance to the Celtics. Reviewing his six steals against Boston wasn’t overly impressive. He made decent plays, but I needed to see more.
Against Houston when Harden dropped 50 with nine TOs, Brett Brown got creative or desperate or something and slid Covington over to the five. In the end it didn’t make a difference, but again, the long SF/PF/C took full advantage of a Houston team (and Harden) that struggles nearly as bad as Philly does when it comes to taking care of the ball. He was directly responsible for at least four of Harden’s nine turnovers while also seizing upon young Clint Capela like the tiger on the savanna feasting on the naïve goat. Tiger Covington kicked some Rocket ass with 28 points and eight steals and broader defensive array than what I saw against Boston. Reading the passer’s eyes (in a couple cases Harden telegraphing passes) and identifying un-sure-handed opponents (Capela) allowed him to take advantage of their mistakes.
Finally, on the 29th of November, the streak continued in what was, based on the tape, his best effort yet. Instead of being the opportunistic poacher I saw against Boston and Houston, Covington swallowed defenders, poking and prodding at the ball with go-go gadget arms. He picked the pocket of sure-handed Mike Conley twice, stripped Jeff Green, and read passing lanes with eyes attached to a head that is on a constant swivel on defense. Six more steals against the Grizz, but he offset those with an ugly eight turnovers.
That’s six, eight, and six steals in consecutive games paired up with four, four, and eight turnovers for a steal-to-turnover rate of 1.3:1 (21 to 16) which is a suspect ratio for a wing.
Covington is no Alvin Robertson. Robertson averaged 2.7 steals/game for his career and we haven’t seen a guy average 2.7 steals/game for a season since CP3 in 2008-09. Covington, like the rest of these Sixers, is nigh impossible to get a true read on because the circumstances deviate so far from what we’re used to analyzing. I don’t have a clue how or what Covington becomes, but his current stretch in 2015-16 is, in its own compartmentalized way, impressive. In nine games he’s appeared in this season, he’s giving Philly 3.6 steals/night while pulling off a streak we haven’t seen in close to 30 years. On December 1st, the Sixers host the Lakers and all their on and off-court mega-circus act. I don’t have a clue what happens in this game, but it’s likely at least one of Philly’s current streaks will come to an end.
November 28, 2015Posted by on
Black Friday, a time for some consumers to pit their deal-stalking prowess against the masses, a post-holiday competitive consuming dessert. For the NBA, a day to get back on track after one of the few league-wide off days. For some, strange cornucopias like chocolate drizzled on turkey manifested themselves on this Friday.
- 50 or more points
- Nine or more turnovers
Two of my favorite storylines this year in the NBA sense of soap opera are Philadelphia and Houston. Black Friday was a chance to see these train wrecks on the same court navigating through their own personal debris in efforts to find some stable safety. But there can only ever be one winner in the NBA and for Houston (they won 116-114 at home knocking to Philly to 0-17 and extending their losing streak to 27 games) it took every particle of James Harden’s basketball being to achieve the victory. Harden hoisted the hodge podge Rockets on his back for the following line:
- Harden, 11/27/15: 50pts on 12-28 from field, 6-12 from 3, 16-20 from the line, 9rebs, 8asts and 9 turnovers
This is right in line with the season he’s having where’s now averaging a career best 30 points/game alongside a career worst five turnovers/game. As I’ve written though, the only time the Rockets seem capable of competing is when James is dominating – efficiency be damned – and his inability to control the ball didn’t prevent a Rockets win. It does put him in some rare company though. As we see below, just two other players in the past 30 seasons have pieced together such uneven lines:
- Allen Iverson, 4/12/97: 50pts on 17-32 shooting, 5-9 from 3, and nine TOs. He was just 21 at the time.
- Hakeem Olajuwon, 4/19/90: 52pts on 21-34 shooting, 18rebs, 3stls, 3blks, 11 TOs while fouling out
Harden wasn’t the only big leaguer to struggle taking care of the ball on this evening. Up north in Oklahoma City, Mountain Dew pitchman Russell Westbrook bing bang bobbled his way into 11 turnovers in just 29 minutes of play (he fouled out) against the Pistons and former teammate Reggie Jackson. His TOs covered a broad swath of ball un-control:
- Dribbled off his foot
- Forced a pass
- Bad pass
- Bad pass
- Stepped out of bounds
- Charge (bad call as Ilyasova pushed into Russ as he drove)
- Dribbled off his foot
- Unforced lost ball on drive
- Charge (tried to draw contact jumping into defender)
- 11 or more turnovers
- 30 minutes or less
Unlike James and his friends Allen and Hakeem, Russ is all alone on this one. Since 1985-86, we’ve never had another guy turn the ball over this much in as limited playing time. It’s entirely possible that someone turned the ball over 12 times in 24 minutes of play, then proceeded to play another 10 minutes of TO-free basketball, but that’s not the criteria.
This is probably Russ’s worst game of the season. On top of the sloppy ball control, he shot 5-14 from the field and fouled out for just the ninth time in nearly 600 career games (playoffs and reg season). His already league-leading turnovers/game went from 4.9 to 5.2 in what’s suddenly become a race to the bottom between him and Harden to see who can turn the ball over most. Like Harden and the Rockets, OKC was still able to win and by double digits despite Russ’s off night. So instead of this being a costly headache, it’s the flipside consequence of a player that exceeds all speed limits and handling guidelines and occasionally goes off the rails as a result.
Not everyone can grace us with the ball protection and calm of a Chris Paul assist-to-turnover ratio. Harden and Westbrook are two of our most dynamic guards, centerpieces of a New NBA with an unstated philosophy that to make the perfect omelet, many, many eggs must be broken. On the same night, pro basketball wunderkind Stephen Curry dropped 41 points while turning the ball over six times and raising his career-worst turnovers/game up to 3.8. It’s like Tyler Durden told us in Fight Club, “even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.”
November 23, 2015Posted by on
In the midst of the decay of Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki has become the late 90s perimeter version of Tim Duncan: the elder statesman that ages, but evolves with something beyond grace, something both practical and creative. At age 37 and in his 18th season, Dirk isn’t so much reinventing his great game as re-purposing and fine tuning it.
Forever known as an all-time shooter, Dirk’s career averages are 51.4% eFG and 38.4% from three. Through 12 games in November of 2015-16, he’s scoffing at those numbers with a career-best 60.8% eFG and 53.3% from three. He’s taking less shots and getting to the line less than at any other point in his career, but at 37 the 9-5 surprise Mavs are happy to trade a bit of volume for unnatural efficiency.
Bill Simmons of Bill Simmons fame created the 50-40-90 club as a statistical marker that takes into account quality shooting from three measures: FG% (50%), three-point accuracy (40%), and free throws (90%). Prior to this season, just eight players (including Dirk) had achieved the informal milestone: Kevin Durant, Steve Nash (four times), Jose Calderon, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, and Larry Bird. In early 2015-16, three players are trying to join that company: Utah’s Joe Ingles with his 13 minutes and three FGAs/game, Steph Curry and his transcendent season (51.5%, 44.1%, 93.8%), and a 37-year-old power forward named Dirk.
Where’s this coming from after a 2014-15 appeared to be the beginning of the inevitable downward slope of Nowitzki’s career? Last season his eFG and three-point shooting were both below career averages. The team as a whole struggled to find an identity after acquiring Rajon Rondo in December. Of their top-20 five-man lineups in 2014-15, Rondo appeared in just two of the top-ten based on point differential per 100 possessions. Four of the bottom-five lineups featured Rondo.
It’s not all about Rondo though as the Mavs made significant off-season changes including acquiring Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, and Zaza Pachulia (three of the top-four minutes/game players on the new roster). A healthy Ray Felton and Chandler Parsons are helping as well. To communicate the lack of continuity from last season, the guy who assisted most of Dirk’s baskets was Monta Ellis with 84 assists in 77 games in which Dirk appeared. He was just a hair over one assist-to-Dirk per game. In 2015-16, Deron Williams is already close to two assists/game to Dirk which is a decent indication Williams is adopting the Rick Carlisle offense in ways that Rondo didn’t and the Mavs are benefiting by getting the big man better looks.
Even though his three-point numbers are most staggering, it’s his work inside the arc that’s equally deadly. From three-to-16 feet, he’s getting over 35% of his total field goal attempts and from those spots he’s shooting either career-best (10-16ft) or near-best (3-10ft). These are remarkable stats of the Barry Bonds variety – as in, Hall-of-Fame player gets older and somehow keeps getting better, but Dirk’s head and neck haven’t grown in comical ways and in place of Balco it’s just his shooting coach Holger. Just your normal German tandem shot genius and savant pupil.
So while it’s easiest to compare Dirk to peers of his own age, comparing him to this season’s most dominant player does a better job of conveying how deadly he’s been. In terms of volume, Nowitzki at his finest couldn’t touch the Curry we’re seeing this year with his five threes made/game on nearly 12 attempts/night. Where a conversation can be had though is around accuracy. Anything that’s weighted towards threes rightly skews in Curry’s favor as he’s massacring our notions of what a volume three-point shooter looks like. For Dirk to be shooting 53% from deep while taking nearly four threes/game is unprecedented. No player in the league has ever hit two threes/game while shooting over 50%. With 68 games on deck, it’s entirely likely that a combination of opponent adjustments and wear and tear bring Dirk closer to his career averages, but at this snapshot in time he’s shot the ball as well as anyone in the league and done it at 37-years-old.
Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone have each had more prolific post-age 37 seasons than what Dirk’s doing this year. They shouldered great loads on good (or bad) teams, but with the exception of Kareem’s timelessness, Malone and Jordan rightly struggled to remain efficient as they aged. Nowitzki’s early season has the makings of a masterpiece. He doesn’t need to be compared to the senior division as he’s still good enough to compete seamlessly with world beaters ten years his junior. He’s truly a master of his craft in his execution and adaptation. His fadeaway and the high arc are romantically iconic. The sun’s going to set on him like it does all of us, but for now he’s traveling through space in a stasis of sorts where time doesn’t seem can’t seem to touch him.
November 18, 2015Posted by on
Rainy Saturday nights in November against the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Quiet, tired Tuesday evenings when the wind is whipping outside and the Toronto Raptors are in town. We’re 12 games into the 2015-16 season and every game the Golden State Warriors play has become an event.
I don’t mean this in the Bill Simmons sense that that they’re so good they’re can’t miss TV though I also understand approach. I mean it in the Floyd Mayweather sense. (I considered titling this piece The Floyd Mayweatherization of the Golden State Warriors, but opted not to because the click baitishness of it all, but really this post is about a type of Mayweatherization.) I don’t know why people tuned into Floyd’s fights, just that the top-three buys for Pay-Per-View fights are owned by Mayweather. Most people either tune in to see him keep winning or hope tonight’s the night he finally loses. With his unblemished record and bombastic embrace of the villain role, he created an atmosphere where at his peak, each and every one of his fights became a mega event – though one can legitimately counter that his swan song against overmatched Andre Berto failed to meet the can’t-miss-TV status of his previous fights. And he’s managed to do it with unlikable, non-fan-friendly style.
Over a short three weeks, these Warriors have amplified the magnitude of their games from entertaining basketball games to high powered events. It’s not just that they’re 12-0 and threatening both the best opening record in NBA history (15-0) or that they’re a realistic possibility to reach 70 games. It’s that their margin of victory is over 15 points/game. They haven’t just adopted the NBA’s love of the three ball, but have mastered it through a blend of style and personnel. If that weren’t enough, the magnetic dichotomy of the best baby-faced player on the planet in Stephen Curry with the cockily confident/confidently cocky Draymond Green has offered up something for fans or non-fans of various stripes.
Much like a Floyd fight, the beginning of every game starts out with an iota of hopeful anticipation. For the Warrior supporter, a relaxed expectation that they will witness greatness yet again, further cementing a growing confidence of both fan and team. Where this begins to coincide with the Floyd fan is the zero in the loss tally. Over 82 games, perfection appears to be unattainable, but our species can’t help but rise and fall within the moment and as long as they’re 11-0, 12-0, 13-0, 14-0, the weight of each game will elevate. And if/when the Warriors finally lose and creep and climb through the winter and spring months, the emphasis will shift towards 70 wins and the weight will come back – probably soft and slow, like a small earthquake (hat tip Neil Diamond). For the Warrior opponent, the hopeful iotas are aimed at an opposite result – the Warrior loss. The non-fan views Warrior wins through the lens of the give-away. The Kings, the Nets, the Raptors had their chances and they gave it away. But they/we will tune in and hold on waiting for the knockout punch and pending desperate, satisfying catharsis.
And what of the connoisseur? The objective critic of Mayweather or Golden State is hard-pressed to find fault in the execution. The results speak for themselves. Championship rings, championship belts, flawless records. My Twitter timeline lights up with gushy excitement when the Warriors ride the improvised waves of basketball circumstances. Steph catches an intended receiver napping and finishes a righty layup in traffic. Floyd rolls his shoulders back, his opponent’s goal (a brutal headshot) less than an inch away but may as well be in Turkmenistan and he counters with a peppering jab to remind the hopeless that the goal, the purpose is and will remain unattainable. The analyzing fan and writers smile in appreciation.
Even the space is part of the event. Oracle Arena tucked along a random highway in Oakland, a strange neighbor to industry, nothing close to a theater of dreams, but a house of worship nonetheless. Despite an ever-growing disparate fan base split between expensive courtside seats and less expensive upper-level seats, the attendees rise and fall in harmonious agreement. As I resided comfortably in my climate-controlled apartment watching the opening of Golden State-Toronto, I was inspired by the moment and the moment finally resonated (after the pre-game Ernie/Webber/Anthony chatter and the post-east coast games) when I recognized the fans. From the opening tip there was a palpability to the game and it started with the fans grasping the sense of the moment and raising their energy accordingly. Some have said that the real Warrior fans are being priced out by the fair weather Silicon Valley crowd and that may be the truest of the trues, but these past couple games where the undefeated start is at stake has produced May-level excitement from Warrior fans regardless of economic status.
This is peak Warriors. Steph Curry is at his other worldly best and Draymond Green is the clear cut second best player on the team. Andrew Bogut is leaner and bouncier. The team can play better, but they can’t be anymore 12-0 than they are 12-0 today. And as long as that zero sits in the loss column and as long as 70-73 wins is in place, every Golden State game will be an event in the Mayweather sense of things.
November 16, 2015Posted by on
James Harden’s 2014-15 season ended with a splat. If you remember, Harden bumbled and stumbled his way into a 2-11 shooting night with a reckless 12 turnovers and a game score of one. Houston was bounced from the playoffs and Harden had the summer to vanquish whatever demons crept through his pores on that late May day.
That was nearly six months ago, plenty of time to recalibrate and find the touch that made Harden’s 2014-15 campaign one of Houstonian bliss. Ten games into the new season though and whatever oddities plagued Harden at the end of the playoffs have hardened into a crust. He’s a career 44% shooter from the field with a 51% mark at eFG (adjusted to account for threes being worth one more point than a normal field goal). Since his days as a 20-point scorer began, he averages just under four turnovers/game. Through ten games of the 2015-16 season, Harden’s efficiency has nosedived to 37% from the field with 4.9 turnovers/game.
Comparing Harden to players other than Harden doesn’t offer a much more favorable view. Since 1985-86, just six other players have managed 210 shot attempts with sub-40% from the field over their first ten games. Except for Kobe’s banged up/shot slinging 2014-15, each player below saw some degree of improvement from their early struggles to their end season stats. (As an aside, what in the hell happened in the Atlantic division in 2002-03 that three players began the season so ineptly inefficient?)
It’s not that the list above is filled with bad company, rather it’s an ugly snapshot in time of otherwise talented players.
Much of Harden’s woes from the field can be traced to a combination of increased fascination with the three-ball and significantly decreased accuracy from that spot. His current approach to the three is enough to make Antoine Walker un-shimmy. After putting up between six to seven threes/game over the past three seasons, he’s jacking nearly ten/game in 2015. For context, prior to this season, no player in league history had ever averaged nine three-point attempts/game. Stephen Curry’s shooting 11.5/game this year, but he’s also making a whopping 45% of them. By contrast, Harden’s ten attempts/game are coming with a 24% efficiency. There’s no reason to suspect that his accuracy won’t creep back up to the 36-37% rate he’s maintained his entire career, but it’s also hard to envision him maintaining the current volume.
While Houston has plenty of issues that have contributed to a 4-6 record with a pair of three-game losing streaks (most notably a defense giving up 107.8ppg [27th out of 30th] with a DRtg of 108.9 [29th out of 30]), the chart below highlights the Rockets early-season dependence on Harden’s offensive efficiency for success. In wins, he has an eFG% of nearly 54 while in losses that number drops to under 32%. As a reminder, his career average is 51%.
There’s such a paradoxical element to Harden’s young 2015-16. He’s averaging a career-high in points at 28.4ppg bolstered by nearly 12 free throw attempts/night while sinking 86% of those attempts, but that’s countered by a career-low in ORtg (estimate of points created per 100 possessions). He’s getting more rebounds than at any point in his career, but that’s driven by him seeing more minutes than ever at small forward as Houston’s been forced to go small due to injuries. And CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed out that even those numbers come with caveats:
The NBA’s SportVU data has Harden logged for the second-most defensive rebound chances on the team, at 10.8 per game. He’s grabbing just 5.5, with only 1.4 contested. That is a horrendous rate, which is fine if he’s not being asked to do that, but with the Rockets going small, the guards have to rebound, and they’re not.
Speaking of said injuries, through ten games, Houston’s dilly dallied with five different starting lineups to accommodate the health of Dwight Howard and dings to Terrence Jones. Reserve guard Patrick Beverley has spent the season banged up and the assimilation of Ty Lawson appears to be confounding the entire populace of Houston – Lawson’s to-date performance as a Rocket makes Harden’s struggles feel like sunbeams and smart vacation. There’s a continuity issue here reflected in their streaky play (three-game losing streak followed by four straight wins then another three-game losing streak) and need for total domination by Harden to win. In wins he’s averaging 38ppg with a near-38% usage rate while losses 22ppg and 32% usage and a despicable 15% from three on 53 attempts.
We have three-plus seasons of video and statistical evidence that defines a true Harden identity. While he’s been historically bad over ten games, history tells us he’ll progress to the mean at some point and we’ve already seen it happen in a few Houston games this season. The question for coach Kevin McHale and Harden are more of a when than an if. But like Alexander’s mother tells him in the book which this post takes its name from: “Some games are like that. Even in Australia.”
November 9, 2015Posted by on
Once upon a time in the pre-presidential Obama days of the NBA, young Mr. Michael Jordan showed up for a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers and their funny two-guard, Reggie Miller. Jordan’s Bulls lost by four points, but it was due in no part to Jordan who crapped all over the Pacers for a sizzling 47 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting 57% from the field and 13-14 from the line. Egads!
Of course Michael Jordan, he of “commerce over conscience” infamy, is the modern-day NBA (defined as 1985-86 which is the first season basketball-reference offers certain box score stats) pioneer of the 43-13 club; aka 43-points and 13-assists, a truly dominant offensive game mixed of equal parts attack and distribution, but all attack.
So how’d we arrive here? James Harden delivered us to this moment on a Friday night in Sacramento in November with his vintage Hardenesque performance: 43 points on 23 shots with 16 FTAs and 13 assists. Harden was a rock or ogre or something irrepressible. And it was kind of fitting that in a league where all two guards are measured by their ability or inability to emulate his Airness, that the two-guard with the most un-MJish game would be the latest in a short line of NBA greats to repeat his feat from 1989.
Here’s the criteria:
- 43 points or more
- 13 assists or more
- Michael Jordan, 26-years-old in 1989: 47pts, 11rebs, 13asts, 4stls
- Larry Bird, 33 in 1990: 43pts, 8rebs, 13asts
- Kenny Anderson, 23 in 1994: 45pts, 8rebs, 14asts, 4stls, 20-23 from FT
- Antoine Walker, 24 in 2001: 47pts, 5rebs, 13asts, 4stls, 9-14 from 3
- Tracy McGrady, 23 in 2003: 46pts, 10rebs, 13asts, 2blks
- Allen Iverson, 31 in 2007: 44pts on 16-22 shooting, 15asts
- Gilbert Arenas, 27 in 2009: 45pts, 13asts
- LeBron James, 25 in 2010: 43pts, 13rebs, 15asts, 4blks, 1-9 from 3
- James Harden, 26 in 2015: 43pts, 13asts, 7 TOs
It’s an illustriously exclusive crowd Harden’s just joined, but fitting given the versatility of his game. Long a playmaker and dynamic scorer, the Beard is one of just 12 players in league history to average 27ppg and 7apg over the course of a single season. Where our eyelashes barely bat at the inclusion of MJ, Bird or LeBron, Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker are more surprising. Anderson’s game was necessitated by an injury to Derrick Coleman while Walker’s was an outmatched team on the road where he caught fire.
Context for games like these matters. In Harden’s case, it was his sixth game of the year, the first three of which had all resulted in 20-point losses with last season’s MVP runner-up shooting a combined 12-54 (22%) from the field and 3-32 (9%) from three. His team has been ravaged by early injuries and the challenge of integrating speedy playmaker Ty Lawson into the attack. On this Friday night, there was no Dwight Howard, no Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, or Patrick Beverley. So against an undermanned (no DeMarcus Cousins) Kings team, Harden seized the reigns and torched the Kings. It was without peer as his best game of the new season with the Rockets largest margin of victory and his own highest usage and ORtg.
Which takes us to the final noteworthy relationship of the 43-13 club; the relationship between usage and Ortg. The 43-13 club means you’re accounting for no less than 60 of your team’s points. A player becomes the catalyzing engine driving the offensive attack from multiple planes much to the defense’s helplessness. I expected higher usage rates which isn’t to say the rates aren’t high, but below we see a consistent relationship: mid-30s usage, mid-130s Ortg – with a couple of truly unique outliers. Allen Iverson’s 44 and 15 on 16-22 shooting stands out as a model of harnessed efficiency which, given his career-long struggles with efficiency becomes the greatest outlier and a likely topic for a future edition.
November 5, 2015Posted by on
On November 3rd, Andre Drummond, all of 22-years-old, notched the second 25-25 game of his career with 25 points on 12-17 shooting and 29 rebounds – a career high. In the process he joined Al Jefferson and Dwight Howard as the only three active players in the league with more than one 25-25 game. Guys like Shaq, Tim Duncan, Patrick Ewing only achieved the feat once in their storied careers, but at 22 Drummond’s already done it twice.
As I looked over this list in all its randomness dating back to 1985-86 (which is worth noting because Wilt Chamberlain, that giant NBA version of Babe Ruth, had three seasons where he averaged 25-25 and went for 30 and 23 as a career average), a few things stuck out in their oddball numerical beauty:
- Hakeem Olajuwon sits on the modern 25-25 throne with five such games
- One of Olajuwon’s games was a 32-point, 25-rebound, 10-block performance which I’ve previously written about and is one of the more dominant/lopsided individual stat lines I’ve come across.
- The highest game score on the list is a 48.6 from Olajuwon on a night back in 1987 when he stuck it to the Sonics of Seattle for 49 points, 25 boards and six blocks. What the shit kind of night is that?
- Kenneth Faried joined the club last year in a game in which he played just 30 minutes – the least minutes of anyone in the club.
- RIP Lorenzen Wright
- And finally, the similarities between Dwight’s and Drummond’s appearances on this list.
By the time he was 21, Howard had his two 25-25s and I can only assume that most folks suspected these wouldn’t be the last two such games of his career. And given that he’s just turning 30 in a few weeks, it’s possible he tacks on a few more, but since his peak is well in the rearview, it’s unlikely.
25-25s aside, the young Dwight-young Drummond connection comes with intrigue not because of the similarities: they’re both powerfully built centers that use size, skill, and athleticism to dominate and they’ve both been coached by Stan Van Gundy; but the nearer they become statistically the better the future looks for Drummond.
At the end of Howard’s fourth season he was a two-time all-star with appearances on the NBA All-Defensive second team, All-NBA third team and All-NBA first team. He was highly decorated and more than prepared to take the torch as the league’s best big man. Drummond was named to the All-NBA Rookie second team back in the day and that’s it. Despite his size and athleticism and despite numbers that favorably compare to Dwight, he’s been unable to crack the code of the NBA’s off-season awards.
My friend and esteemed basketball writer and thinker Ian Levy just wrote a nice in-depth piece on the dissimilarities between these two that goes well beyond simplifications of them being large athletes that rebound and dunk. And where Dwight’s defense has long been Hall-of-Fame level (he’s the only player since the inception of the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1982-83 to win it three straight seasons), Andre’s merely a good defender. Though we’re looking at significantly different players, there are intersections and overlaps between their first three seasons. Below, in the most unscientific way possible, I’ve attempted to identify these intersections via my own made up statistic that includes traditional big man stats PPG, RPG, BPG combined with PER minus turnovers to arrive at an arbitrary stat for each of Andre and Dwight’s first three years in the league.
The above unscientific approach is interesting because it takes a variety of stats and makes a fat stat patty out of them which, when viewed in their entirety is strikingly similar in terms of progression and production. Additionally, through three seasons, both players were 21 and were just getting to know Van Gundy: he didn’t start coaching Howard until his fourth season and Drummond in his third. None of the above is presented to imply that Drummond = Dwight. Drummond is a much better offensive rebounder and plays more to his own strengths offensively which results in less turnovers. Young Dwight was the superior defender, (somehow) had a broader array of offensive moves, and was able to stay on the court for longer stretches without getting in foul trouble.
And yet, even with those copious variations, the statistical similarities are hard to overlook. If we shift forward with a similar eye and the little four-game sample we have of this season, it doesn’t take ultra-optimism to imagine a 2015-16 season out of Drummond. Dwight made significant leaps in his fourth year with improvements in scoring (ppg and FTA/game), rebounding (total boards and rebounding rate), and offensive and defensive impact (career bests in offensive and defensive win shares and offensive and defensive rating). Four games into 2015-16 is too few to plant any flags in Drummond making a similar leap, but with the paint cleared of former running mate Greg Monroe and a hand-crafted SVG roster that creates greater space for Drummond, the magic eight ball indicates sunny days for the big man. Or, if November 3rd’s ridiculous 25-29 game provides some kind of symbolic indicator of the future, then step to the side, lest you be dunk slammed on by the giant Andre Drummond.
November 3, 2015Posted by on
We’re in November and the Golden State Warriors have played less than five percent of their total regular season games. The most recent, their fourth of the young year, was punctuated by a violent 119-69 Mike Tyson-over-Michael Spinks type victory over the Grizz – the same Grizz that took a 2-1 lead over GSW in the playoffs just six months ago. In the breezy 28 minutes he played, reigning MVP and pioneer of “new NBA” style basketball Steph Curry incinerated the Grizz for 30 points on 16 shots. Speaking in purely statistical terms, this was a below average game for Curry in 2015-16, but like I cautioned, we’ve got 78 games to go.
But in the young offering of the new season, Steph’s taking what was already a nuclear game and style replete with some kind of next world hand-eye coordination, progressively audacious handle, Doc Holliday trigger finger, and already all-time range and accuracy combination, and building on it.
In 2014-15, his first season under the guidance of Steve Kerr, Curry was a joy to behold, roughly achieving the same averages he had in 2013-14 (pts, rebounds, asts, 3s, stls, etc) while appearing in four less minutes per game. Comparing his 2014-15 to 2012-13 is even starker: he played six more minutes per game that year, but his per-game averages were lower as were his shooting percentages. His per-36 numbers from 2014-15 outshone what had already been all-star caliber numbers. Improvement is expected, but as we’ll see, the type of improvement is mostly unprecedented.
I’m going to paraphrase here and most likely screw this up, but there’s a four-quadrant concept that occurs in learning and task mastery:
- You don’t know what you don’t know – you’re unconscious
- You become aware of the things you don’t know – your consciousness develops so you can at least identify what you want to improve upon
- You consciously begin to tackle those things of which you recently became aware
- You unconsciously do the things you recently did in a conscious state
If last year’s MVP/NBA champion season was step #4 for Steph where execution became second nature like breathing and sneezing and laughing, then the four games we’ve seen of him in 15-16 are closer to that scene in The Matrix when Neo is all “What are you trying to tell me, I can dodge bullets?” and Morpheus responds, “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
Was there a point where Steph realized he didn’t have to metaphorically “dodge bullets,” that it would just happen instinctually? On opening night last week, his first quarter should’ve been an indication to all of us that instead of seeing the illusory images on the court, he was deep in some meta coding, interpreting his opponent’s futile defensive efforts as nothing more than unprejudiced attempts designed to deter him. In the first quarter alone he shot 9-13 (would’ve been 9-12 had he not heaved up a 40-footer as time expired) with 24 points. It was lightning, violence, blitzkrieg, all-out attack, a metaphor for war. It was, intentionally or not, a battle hymn that rang out across the TNT-powered sound waves through speakers and pixels into our feeble senses.
But it didn’t stop there and hasn’t stopped. We’re still hibernating in small sample size theater season, but something strange is afoot, like white walker afoot or when the levee breaks afoot. Through these piddly four games, Steph, this time under the substitute coaching of Luke “Son of Bill” Walton, is obliterating his own MVP-level stats and he’s somehow doing it with rarefied combination below:
- Less minutes/game
- More shots (more on this)
- Increased efficiency (very little on this)
Because the Warriors can beat other playoff teams like the Grizz by 50 points on random Monday nights, there’s no need for Curry to play big minutes. This is our loss. In four games, all against playoff teams, GSW’s closest game was a 14-point victory. He’s averaging under 32 minutes/game. What we’re seeing though is that his slice of the offensive pie has grown in 2015-16. Where Curry’s career average for field goal attempts/game has sat right 16 attempts with a career high of just under 18 FGA back in 2012-13 in 38 minutes/game, Curry’s now cramming in 21 shots/game. He’s somehow getting up 32% more shots/game than his career average while appearing in the second lowest MPG of his career.
It doesn’t stop with field goals. As part of that 21 FGAs/game, Curry’s pushing an unprecedented nearly 11 3s/game. To put that into context, the most 3PAs a player has ever attempted on a per-game basis was Baron Davis back in 2004 when he put up 8.7/game. Curry’s clearly a prolific gunner himself and holds the top two single-season records for 3s made. His career high of 8.1 3Pas/game is good enough for sixth on the all-time list. But if we compare his current little four-game stretch to his career average of 6.5 3PAs/game, we see a ballsy bold leap of 64%. And if we’re truly interested in blowing our minds all over the walls in blue and gold Warrior-themed blood spatter in queer basketball-themed Rorschach patterns, then layer on the context that Curry’s spike in volume is being accompanied by a career best three-point accuracy (48.8%). He’s hitting five threes/game!
So Curry’s hovering around the perimeter, chucking record-setting threes and hitting them at paces typically reserved for guys who trade volume for efficiency. He’s taking advantage of spacing and passing and ball movement and all that good stuff. Yes to all of that, but for any notion that he’s merely perfecting the areas of already-existing strength while other aspects of his game stay flat or see small rises, he’s again a step ahead. For his career, Curry’s shooting a paltry 3.5 free throws/game. He’s third all-time in FT% just behind Steve Nash and Mark Price, so he’s getting the most bang for his free throw buck, but at 3.5 attempts/game with a career best of 4.5, he’s good at getting to the line for a point guard, but nothing special. In our shortened present season he’s somehow expanded his offensive range to include seven FTAs/game. For a guy that shoots over 90% from the line, seven FTAs/night is free points, a rhythmic bonus that builds on what’s already elite confidence. Where his increase in 3PA/game was a stunning 64%, his increase in FTA/game relative to his career average is nearly double at a 99% increase and the graph below more so than the others above clearly illustrates this spike.
While I’ve touched on Steph’s increased makes, I chose to focus on the attempts to show the early tidal change from last season. Maybe it’s having Walton at the helm instead of Kerr or maybe Klay Thompson has a bad back. Perhaps Kerr and company saw something in the numbers or on film, something like, “More Steph is better.” Regardless of the impetus for the jumps in volume, the return Golden State’s seeing on his increased offensive aggressiveness are eye popping and head shaking. Who averages 37ppg in under 32mpg for a team that beats all comers by double digits? It is unprecedented, I swear it is. It has to be.
We’re dealing with the smallest of sample sizes to the degree that every stat called out in this piece should have an asterisk next to it (“Hey man, it’s less than 5% of games, chill!”), but what we’re seeing even through these four games is borderline comical in the way that peak Pedro Martinez or Aroldis Champan were/are comical; we know what to expect and the opponent thinks they know what to expect and it doesn’t matter. The stats tell this truth as well as any verbose language or overused thesauri ever could. And sure sure, it’s probably unsustainable, but what if by some dint in the makeup of things, it is sustainable? If there’s even a shred of sustainability going on here, may god have mercy on all their basketball-playing souls because in this new NBA, the man shooting 50% on 11 3s/game is king.